September 4, 2018
I just returned from vacation in Spain. It is interesting to see there the roots of Mexico’s colonial culture, and to note how here it has integrated with distinctively Mexican values. One of the most striking aspects as I return home, however, is the difference in public spaces. Spain has many beautiful squares and wonderful large public parks. Madrid has the Buen Retiro, Barcelona its Ramblas and Montjuic, and Valencia the magnificent sequence of parks that cuts through the entire town in the riverbed of the now diverted Turia river. But these feel less local, less an integral part of community life, than do the parks of Mérida.
The most visible and significant park here is the Plaza Grande, sitting atop the ancient core of the Mayan city of T’ho. Surrounded by the Casa Montejo, (best preserved Renaissance façade in Mexico), the oldest cathedral on the American continent, and its companion, the former bishop’s palace, (now a contemporary art museum), the former governor’s palace with its murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco, city hall with its iconic bell tower, and the Olimpo Cultural Center, the Plaza Grande is alive with activity most of the week, including the dialogues with the conquistadors and Saturday’s pok-ta-pok, (Mayan ballgame) match. It is a “must see” for tourists.
Colonia Garcia Ginerés has its grand Parque de las Americas with unique Mayan-inspired architecture - impressive pools and fountains, a large band shell, and monuments to each nation of the Americas. To the west of downtown is Parque Centennario, built for the centennial of Mexican Independence. It includes one of Mérida’s two zoos, with free admission year round!
In Yucatán’s capital every barrio of the historic center and every colonia outside of Centro has a park at its core. Most of these surround, or adjoin Catholic churches. Many feature basketball courts, or baseball diamonds. Several border mercados. Only one that I know of includes all of these features. It is my favorite, and it is only one half-block from my house! Named for Miguel Alemán (president of Mexico from 1946-1952), Parque Alemán, is one of the most active in the city.
The park’s perimeter is a paved path where hundreds of walkers and joggers start their day while fruit and juice vendors set up booths alongside in the shade of majestic acacia and flamboyane trees. The large plaza on the east side of the park is bounded by monuments and fountains, as well as free exercise equipment. Here the city offers zumba and tai-chi classes on weekday mornings, and large exercise classes in the evening. As the sun rises, city cleaners pick up debris from the previous evening. By ten o’clock the park is all but abandoned as the heat of the day sets in. But as the day fades, and the breezes move in from the Gulf of Mexico, pushcarts arrive to sell marquesitas, waffle cones filled with cheese and cajeta that are a peculiarly Mexican treat, and ears of corn slathered in butter and chili. A bounce house materializes in the midst of the park. Along the south end of the plaza telescopes appear, and easels with paper for children to paint, and toy electric cars.
The western half of the park includes an elaborate track for skaters, bikers and skateboarders; a green area where people walk their dogs and children initiate soccer skirmishes; two playgrounds for younger children, and a permanent carnival area with merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and other rides. Older folk sit on benches lining the paths and exchange gossip. It is a very family-oriented environment that welcomes all ages and classes. The sight of so many children laughing and playing can bring a smile to the saddest or most hardened heart!
Since I moved here, the park has hosted trova, cumbia, mariachi, jazz, rock and broadway concerts, talent contests, children’s theater, jobs fairs, the annual kennel club dog show, organic foods and entrepreneurial expos, and political rallies. It is never dull.
South of the park sits the Church of the Sacred Heart, an unremarkable structure that could as easily have been an airplane hanger. The sides of the church open to the elements without barriers, effortlessly facilitating overflow crowds at Easter and Christmas. The church uses the entire park for the stations of the cross on Good Friday, and hundreds attend. Beside the church stands a modern supermarket, floral shop, hardware store, veterinarian, four restaurants, and the mercado itself - with fruit and vegetable stalls, spice shop, cheese, egg, meat, poultry and fish vendors, bakery, tortilleria, optician, frame shop, pet store, news stands, toy store, etc. So complete are the offerings that many older residents have never owned a car and rarely need public transportation to venture beyond the boundaries of our colonia!
Another park is currently under construction just over a mile away. Gran Parque La Plancha, billed as a “new lungs” for the city, will convert abandoned railroad yards into a forty-nine acre central park, a welcome addition to a city that has long cemented over green space indiscriminately. The former railroad station has already been converted to an art school. Subsidiary buildings will become museums. It will take several years to complete, but neighboring housing is already being upgraded. In a city that seems unstoppable, should one doubt that La Plancha will become a reality?